Ask any sports lover in India whether he or she knows who Shankar Laxman was and I would be surprised if the answer was yes. Shankar Laxman was the goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team which won the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The next time India would win the Olympic hockey gold would be in 1980 when the Western countries would boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Well, here is the tribute I wrote for Shankar Laxman and which was published in the Mhow Diary column of Free Press on April 28 2007, a day before the hockey hero's first death anniversary.
Shankar Laxman - The forgotten hero of Indian hockey by Dev Kumar Vasudevan(From the Mhow Diary column of April 28 2007 of Free Press Indore)
Shankar Lakshman - Indian hockey hero, goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics died almost a year ago on 29 April 2006. A month before his death the people of Mhow were shocked to learn that he was suffering from gangrene in one leg. Doctors suggested amputation. He and his family refused. They opted for alternative therapy. He was going to Ramesh Parmar, former cricketer and a healer who uses traditional herbal remedies. Member of Parliament Jyotiraditya Scindia had promised him all help when he had come to Indore to attend the One Day International Match against England on April 15, 2006.
When I asked somebody who knew him I was told that Dada, as he is still known in Mhow, was improving. It was a shock to learn about the death of someone who lived just a few miles away by seeing a flash on a New Delhi based television news channel. I had been hearing of Shankar Lakshman since my childhood and was always in awe of him. I had visited his house a fortnight before his death and was told that he had gone to get herbal medicine applied on his leg. I was asked to come later. I could never go. Perhaps I was destined not to meet him.
Shankar Lakshman was born on July 7, 1933 in Mhow. He belonged to the Shekhawat community of Rajasthan. He played hockey at a time when the goalkeeper had only the pads as a protective gear. He was a member of the Olympic gold medal winning hockey team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The other medals he won include the 1958 Asian Games gold medal (Tokyo), 1960 Olympics silver medal (Rome), 1964 Olympics gold medal (Tokyo) and the 1966 Asian Game Gold medal (Bangkok). He was awarded the Arjuna Award in 1965 and the Padmashri in 1967. He was dropped from the Indian hockey team to the Mexico Olympics of 1968 and the decline of Indian hockey also began with that tournament.
His opponents called him the Rock of Gibraltar. According to the manager of the silver medal winning Pakistani hockey team of the '64 Tokyo Olympics, Shankar Lakshman was the sole obstacle between the Pakistani team and the gold medal. Just take a look at his stunning record. In three Olympic finals against Pakistan he conceded just one goal and in three Asian Games finals he conceded two goals. That makes it six matches and three goals. Charles Cornelius, the former India hockey player had once said of him " Lakshman was among the game's greatest. He was an epitome of courage and a role-model for others of his ilk. Unfazed by any situation, he had the ability to defuse any crisis. His team-mates were at a loss to know how his pads grew broader and broader as the contest wore on ." Referring to his performance in the 1964 Hockey finals against Pakistan in Tokyo the Australian Hockey magazine Hockey Circle had said "...for Lakshman, the ball was the size of a football. It was his afternoon of glory and fame. "
Lakshman had joined the Indian Army as a bandsman in 1947 at the tender age of 14 and served in the Maratha Light Infantry's 5th Battalion. He had retired from the Army as a Subedar Major in 1978 and was awarded the rank of honorary captain. As luck would have it one of the battalions posted in Mhow at the time of his death was the 26th battalion of the Maratha Light Infantry- his funeral was conducted with full military honours by this battalion. It was an emotional experience not only for the townspeople of Mhow but also for the Army. The Maratha Light Infantry could bid goodbye to one of its most illustrious sons. Garrison Ground Mhow has been converted into a mini stadium by the Infantry School and has been named after him. The Infantry School Mhow has also instituted the Shankar Lakshman Hockey Championship Trophy. An apt honour for a son of Mhow. This trophy was won for the first time by the 26th Maratha Light Infantry. That is something which must have made him proud if he had been alive.
He had begun his sports career as a footballer. He was the captain of the football team of Kodaria village in Mhow. It was only after he joined the Army that he switched over to hockey. The rest, as they say, is history. He had founded a club named Heroes Club in Mhow to popularise hockey. Young Brothers, Mhow's best football club, also benefited from his expertise. His expert comments given during the 1982 Hockey World Cup in Bombay (Mumbai) were much appreciated. He was the coach of the Indian Hockey Team to the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. His son Manohar Singh was also a hockey player and had played for Indore Christian College and the University of Indore (as Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya was known earlier). But his grandsons have taken to wrestling which is another sport Mhow is famous for. According to Manohar Singh healthy sponsorship is the only way to make hockey popular again in India. He is not surprised that today's youngsters go for cricket and not for hockey.
Lakshman lived a quiet retired life in Mhow. Almost every sportslover here has some anecdote about him. The IHF and officialdom may have ignored him but he was loved by the people of this small town who were very proud of him and loved him dearly. For them, he was, and will always remain, one of the few genuine heroes that their small town has produced.
Note: I was under the mistaken impression that Shankar Laxman was the captain of the Indian hockey team to the Tokyo Olympics. And the scanned copy of this article will also show this error. I was told by a researcher that Laxman was the captain of the Indian hockey team which played in the 1966 Bangkok Asiad.